There are many ways to view wildlife on safari, from game drives to canoe and walking safaris. But one of the most thrilling ways to catch a glimpse of lions, buffalo, and wildebeests is from above, in a hot air balloon. Kenya’s wildlife-rich Masai Mara National Reserve offers hot air balloon safaris through companies like Balloon Adventure Keekorok, which was among the first hot air balloon operators in the park in 1976. But it is also where Kenya’s first Black female hot air balloon pilot, Captain Joyce Beckwith, is based.
Beckwith always knew she wanted a career in transportation. Her parents owned a trucking business, transporting mainly corn from Kenya to neighboring Uganda, and she grew up spending Sundays with her dad at the garage. “My dad wanted me to be a rally car driver, so he taught me how gears worked and would put me on his lap so I could ‘drive’,” she says. “[But] those rally racing dreams came to an end when we crashed the car I practiced in.”
Instead, Beckwith turned to a career in hospitality and tourism—and a 2007 trip as an intern to Masai Mara was the first time she saw a hot air balloon. She later returned to the Mara, where her husband Dan was working as a hot air balloon pilot. Soon after their wedding, they took her father up over the reserve in a balloon. “My dad told me that I should ask my husband to teach me to fly a balloon because I am good with my hands—in particular, mechanical work—and a fast learner, but I didn’t take him seriously at the time,” Beckwith says.
Even though she accompanied Dan on countless hot air balloon safaris, she had never taken the helm. “My interest was totally different,” she says. “I am also a wildlife photographer, so I went with a photographic eye. But after a couple of hundred times in the balloon, I felt an urge to fly [for myself].”
Due to the lack of hot air balloon schools in Kenya, and in Africa overall, Beckwith enrolled at the Airborne Heat Balloon Flying School in Albuquerque, New Mexico, in 2018. She was one of two Kenyans enrolled in the program, and the only Black African woman in her cohort. “The industry is similar to most in terms of it being male dominated,” she says. “I have had to work twice as hard to get noticed and respected by my peers, but…the hot air ballooning community around the world is very welcoming.”
Her first flight as a certified pilot back on the Masai Mara was equal parts exciting and nerve wracking. “I was carrying African global star Yemi Alade [who] was visiting Masai Mara to shoot the music video of her hit single ‘Shekere’ with Angelique Kidjo,” Beckwith says. “Once I was in flight mode, it was magical and I couldn’t have asked for better flying conditions. It was perfect.”
Now, more often carrying guests on safari than musicians recording music videos, Beckwith says that travelers will ask her to sign their trip certificates when they discover that she is Kenya’s first female hot air balloon pilot.
On a regular day, Beckwith gets up at 4:30 a.m. to check the weather and prep the balloon. “We take off between 6:30 and 6:45 a.m., with the flight lasting 45 minutes to an hour,” she says. “There’s the beautiful sunrise and a scenic landscape—and what’s on the ground is always a bonus.”
Over the past year, her days have become a little less regular. Like many people working in the safari industry, the COVID-19 pandemic has impacted Beckwith’s business, and she’s had to lay off two staffers. Dependent on international tourists, the safari industry in Kenya has seen an estimated loss of $752 million. However, Beckwith, who is also a safari travel consultant, realized that Kenyan travelers finally had an opportunity to book hot air balloon safaris due to international cancellations. “We’re usually booked out a year in advance, so locals who are usually not as forward thinking in terms of planning trips would lose out on the experience,” she says. “During this pandemic, Kenyans have flown with me and sustained my salary and those who work in the Masai Mara.”
She’s also kept busy building a virtual tourism information hub for Masai Mara called Visit Masai Mara and is collaborating with a Kenyan company to launch an affordable safari clothing line.
As she looks to a post-pandemic future, Beckwith plans to open a hot air balloon school to encourage more Africans to join the field. While that project is a long way off, she hopes she isn’t the only one bringing hot air balloon education to the continent. “Even before obtaining an education, I advise people interested in this field to go to their civil aviation authority and find out what the rules and regulations are of setting up a balloon company,” she says. “Then [you could] set up your own school in your respective African country.”
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